Author Jane Austen's most famous work, Pride and Prejudice, begins with an iconic phrase: “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” The unforgettable nature of that expression is fitting; the works of the young writer—six completed novels, in addition to other writings—have remained relevant over the 200 years since the author's early death in 1817.
The trials and tribulations of characters written in another era have even inspired modern classics such as the 1995 film Clueless (based on Austen's tale Emma). What can be “universally acknowledged” is that Austen's works have come to define the Regency period—the era surrounding the Regency of the mad King George III, from 1811-1820. Much as the name Shakespeare evokes the politics and society of Elizabethan England, the name Jane Austen seems to encompass the social milieu, manners, and tastes of Georgian Britain.
Read on to discover 10 fascinating facts about the life of Jane Austen.
Jane Austen's closest friend was her sister Cassandra Austen.
The sisters were two years apart and the only girls among the Austen family's eight children. Both Cassandra and Jane never married, although both are thought to have become engaged once, respectively. They remained close throughout their lives. Educated at boarding school, they were both artistic. While Austen wrote, Cassandra sketched and painted—her watercolor sketch of Jane is the only verifiable portrait of the author during her lifetime. The sisters lived together throughout most of Jane's life, and upon the author's death, her sister was instrumental in getting Persuasion and Northanger Abbey published posthumously.
The working title of Austen's most famous work, Pride and Prejudice, was originally First Impressions.
Perhaps Austen's most famous work, the tale of Elizabeth Bennet, her silly sisters, and the brooding Mr. Darcy was written by the young author from 1796 to 1797. The working draft was referred to by Austen in a letter to her sister as First Impressions, a title which makes sense given the many misjudgments of the book's characters. However, the draft was not published immediately and languished for many years. In 1811, Austen is thought to have edited the draft rather heavily before selling it to a publisher for £110. The final title of Pride and Prejudice is thought to be inspired by a chapter title from the 1782 novel Cecilia by another authoress named Fanny Burney.
Jane Austen advised marrying for love—and seems to have followed her own advice.
A youthful romance with an Irishman named Tom Lefroy peppers Austen's letters to her sister. However, the match never happened. Another potential flirtation with a man named Samuel Blackall may have taken place. It is known that Austen only received one proposal—from a man named Harris Bigg-Wither when she was 27 years old. She recognized the practicality given her age and situation and accepted; however, the next morning she withdrew her acceptance citing she was “miserable.” According to scholar Fiona Stafford, Austen told her niece, “Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.”
Austen's novels made her relatively little money, and she died with only a small estate.
Austen made relatively little as an author. Some of her works she sold on commission, reaping a reward per book sold. For others, she sold the copyright directly to publishers—forfeiting future revenue for a larger immediate sum. She sold the copyright for Pride and Prejudice for only £110, and it later sold well. Such income was admirable for a young woman, but not enough to live independently on for those of her middling, educated class. When Austen died, her estate was valued quite modestly at under £800.
Austen's modern widespread popularity developed years after her death but has not since abated.
Although her books sold modestly well, Jane Austen's fame was largely posthumous. Many of her papers, letters, and manuscripts were destroyed purposefully or without thought as the remaining family continued with their lives. Luckily, her family preserved memories of Austen and select papers for the next generations. James Austen-Leigh—a nephew of Austen—wrote the first biography of her in 1869 entitled A Memoir of Jane Austen. This rosy depiction of the authoresses life placed Austen firmly in British literary history as a chronicler of Georgian culture.
The author Charlotte Brontë did not like Austen's writing; Charles Darwin, however, loved the novels.
Writing in 1848, the author Charlotte Brontë accused her predecessor's lack of feeling. She described Austen's work as “an accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common face.” It is unsurprising that Brontë considered Austen's writing rather banal compared to her darker Jane Eyre. However, a surprisingly big fan of Austen's work was Charles Darwin. Ironically, Austen took Darwin's place on the British £10 note in 2013.
Austen spent much time in Bath—a resort town in the south of England—which is often mentioned in her writing.
Between 1800 and 1805, Jane Austen and her family (those without their own households) lived in the resort town of Bath. Named as such for the Roman baths found in the city, the marble facade of the town hosted the cream of society who came to take the waters for their health. During this time, Austen traveled frequently and wrote little—perhaps out of listlessness or business. She did begin a novel (unfinished) called The Watsons, the draft of which was bought by the Bodleian Library at Oxford in 2011 for over one million pounds.
Austen was a beloved aunt to her nieces and nephews; they influenced her writing.
As mentioned above, Austen's nephew wrote the first biography of her—albeit a rather watered-down version appropriate for Victorian ideas of womanhood. As one of eight, Jane Austen had countless nieces and nephews. The nieces, in particular, seem to have inspired the women of her later novels. Austen was never a mother but believed greatly in being an aunt. She wrote in 1815 to a niece who had recently joined the club of aunts, “Now that you have become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence and must excite great Interest whatever You do. I have always maintained the importance of Aunts as much as possible, and I am sure of your doing the same now. Believe me my dear Sister-Aunt.” Some of Austen's nieces lived into the era of photography, and you can find those images here.
Mysteriously ill, Austen's death in 1817 at age 41 is still a subject of modern medical and historic speculation.
In 1816, about a year before her death, Austen began to feel poorly. Living and writing in Winchester over her last year of life, the author claimed rheumatism. However, literary scholars, historians, and medical experts have all weighed in since her death on what caused such a decline at age 41. Some ascribe her death to cancer, others to Addison's disease—an endocrine disorder. While we will probably never know the true cause for certain, you can pay your respects at her grave in Winchester Cathedral.
Jane Austen's books have been published in countless languages and made into many screen adaptions.
Today, over 200 years after her death, Jane Austen is the household name she never was in life. Her words have enchanted, illuminated, and introduced generation after generation to Georgian England. In the 1998 classic rom-com You've Got Mail starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, Ryan emails her secret penpal about her love for Austen: “Confession: I have read Pride and Prejudice two hundred times. I get lost in the language, words like: Thither. Mischance. Felicity. I am always in agony over whether Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are really going to get together. Read it! I know you’ll love it.” Such is the magic of Austen's words and stories.
Read them, we know you'll love them.
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